As South Africa sit on the cusp of an ODI series win over New Zealand, the hosts' psychological edge over them is waning. New Zealand's reputation as a crafty, street-smart team who play the game as much on the field as off it combined with their victory over South Africa in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal was thought to give them a mental advantage but the results on the current tour have eroded that, according to captain AB de Villiers.
South Africa came back from 1-0 down to win the three-match Twenty20 series 2-1 and lead the ODI rubber 1-0. They have shrugged off pressure as casually as if it were an unnecessary neck scarf and de Villiers said New Zealand may not be able to tie it back around them with any ease.
"They've been aggressive every game so far. Unfortunately you are restricted with aggression if you are not winning games," de Villiers said. "You've got to be ahead of the game before you can be aggressive and you've got to draw the line somewhere. If you have don't have momentum, aggression is good, but there comes a stage where it's not going to do much to the opposition."
Instead, de Villiers said the force is now with South Africa who, "had momentum at the right times and we ran with it." de Villiers stressed that they wanted to close out the series in Napier. "We wouldn't like to take it to the last game," de Villiers said. "We all know that New Zealand play well in their home conditions but we have also been playing well."
South Africa will likely go into the match with the same XI that helped take the series lead, which will keep Robin Peterson as the first-choice spinner ahead of Johan Botha and leaving Justin Ontong on the bench. "It's tough to make changes when you are winning games. We wouldn't like to change too much," de Villiers said.
He was particularly complimentary of Peterson, who finished the first ODI with figures of 2 for 45 in 10 overs, as being key to carrying out de Villiers' tactical plans. "Taking the pace off after 10 overs was a decent move. Robbie bowled extremely well," he said. Peterson was brought on in the 11th over and took the wicket of Rob Nicol in his first spell. He returned towards the end of the innings to nip Doug Bracewell out and tie New Zealand down at the tail. "He bowled at tough times, in the Powerplays and at the end and he did extremely well. I think that tactic worked."
Peterson was not the only bowler responsible for keeping New Zealand under South Africa's thumb. de Villiers said the attack was buoyed by the return of Dale Steyn to spearhead the troops. "Dale bowled with a lot aggression and he had a good presence out there. He is the leader of our bowling attack and we missed him in the T20s," he said. Steyn was rested for the first part of the tour but will play in the ODIs and Tests, much to de Villiers' approval. "He is that guy that has got a bit of an aura about him. It's nice to have him back."
South Africa's bowling attack acted as the architects of their victory, allowing New Zealand only a modest total but de Villiers said they are bracing for a completely different outing in Napier. A flat, hard deck awaits, one on which New Zealand piled on over 370 runs the last time they played in an ODI there. If given the option, de Villiers said he would like to make first use of a pitch that he thinks is even better than South Africa's 438 strip at the Wanderers.
"A good wicket like this is normally better to bat first so I will probably look to put the pressure on New Zealand," he said. "It's even harder than the Wanderers. It's by a long way the hardest wicket we have played on here. I don't think there will be that much seam movement. Wanderers has got something in it for the bowlers in the first 10 to 15 overs. It's a day-nighter here so in the afternoon it might be nice and flat."
For de Villiers, it will be a pitch that will allow him to employ one of his favourite techniques: the art of batsmen strangulation. "I like to squeeze, I don't like to give away too many singles," he explained. "I feel that's where a batter gets settled on the wicket. Part of our game plans is to squeeze and force them to go for the boundary options and that's where we pick up a few wickets as well."